UKRAINE remains an independent state. For now. But last week's shamelessly rigged presidential election results were engineered by Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin's security services.
Exit polling, opinion polling, international election observers, Ukrainian local authorities and the people agree that opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, a pro-Western Democrat, won. But the pro-Moscow government of Ukraine claims that the spectacularly corrupt incumbent Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych received the major ity of votes.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to Kiev's streets in protest. Even Yanukovych has been wary of declaring his own victory. Yet Putin immediately extended his congratulations to the nervous "victor."
The Kremlin poured massive funding into the election campaign. The pro-Russian mafia that has a bully's grip on the Kiev government stuffed ballot boxes, manipulated absentee ballots, extorted votes and then simply changed the numbers to give Moscow's man a 49 percent to 46 percent lead.
This is the biggest test for democracy on Europe's frontier since the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia always seemed fated for a hybrid government — part elections, part strongman rule — but Ukraine could go either way. Especially in the country's west and center, Ukrainians have struggled for freedom for centuries.
But Russia regards Ukraine as its inalienable possession, stolen away as the U.S.S.R. collapsed.
Fatefully, the ties were never severed between the successors of the KGB in Moscow and Kiev. Now the grandchildren of the Russian thugs who mercilessly put down Nestor Makhno's Ukrainian revolt against the Bolsheviks, who slaughtered Ukraine's prosperous peasantry and murdered Ukraine's intelligentsia are back at work.
This election may have been Ukraine's last chance.